The Pepsi Ad Can Happen To You

It’s hard to remember an ad that received more mainstream attention than the latest Pepsi Ad. The original has unfortunately been taken down, but you can get most of it from the coverage on Late Night Comedy, YouTubers, and whatever Cracked is these days. This coverage gave us a rare insight into how mainstream audiences perceive advertising decisions. It turned the global society into one big focus group!

The results were infamously negative and many articles have been written already, offering explanations why the ad failed. However, I couldn’t help but listen to all the satire and think back to many a long meeting with a client and thinking „I know exactly why they did that, it’s just like that time when we…“

And that is my point: The reaction to the Pepsi ad obscures what a shockingly regular piece of work it is in the ad industry. If they didn’t try to co-opt a very sensitive and already anti corporate narrative, the ad would just be another one of many with little to no ad recall. Rather than enjoying the schadenfreude, we should take lessons from it and examine how our own companies might make the same mistake, and it is my belief that the reasons behind their disaster can be encountered in any marketing department, brainstorming meet or brief:

1. Trying to be edgy without pissing anyone off:

Everyone loves a rebel. However, brands are owned by corporations and corporations don’t become billion dollar businesses by taking risks and pissing people off. Therefore, if you don’t have the support from the entire management don’t even try to play the rebel — you end up cornering yourself into compromises.

Oreo famously supported pride marches. I bet their hotlines were overwhelmed by angry customers, I bet their community managers hated the stress this put on them, I bet the PR depts heads were spinning from the negative AVE. I don’t doubt that in all that noise, there was a feel that in the short term this hurt Oreo’s sales. I feel it did wonders for them in the long term and elevated the product to a brand that is a status symbol now.

2. Talking at everyone:

How often do you get the brief along the following lines: Our core target is young moms 25 to 45, but we don’t want to forget men either? Lazy briefs aside, it is more perilous now than ever before to group people this way. Social media have enabled us to find our niche and build our identities on it, rather than traditional targeting parameters like demographics.

Fortunately, digitalization also enabled us to create many pieces of content targeted at many consumers. Your brand may express the same values to a rebellious teenager and to a single-mom, but in different ways. However, marketing departments are currently set up against that: this would exponentially increase the need for feedback, the complexity of measurement and reporting, for delegating responsibility etc. Not many organizations have worked this out yet.

3. Showing all occasions:

I found it hilarious how all comedians picked on the meal scene in the ad. Of Course, all marketeers know why this and other scenes are there: you must always show that a drink goes great with food, that anything targeted at teens is complementary with music, and that it inspires romance. These steps have become so ingrained into everything we do, we don’t even question them anymore.

Now we have a confirmation of something we knew, but it always took a backseat to the monkey see, monkey do theory that if we show the consumation, it creates an ad that is more effective. By all means we should create effective ads, but we can either persuade consumers by a compelling story, or by providing well wrapped information. The two don’t mix.

4. Place the perfect serve everywhere:

We’ve reached a funny point in advertising where a cartoonishly obvious digital render of the product is preferred than an image of the actual product. We do this in order to make the product stand out and offer ideal instead of reality, but just like above, this technique does not mix well with storytelling. This is why everyone picked up on the disruptions like a conveniently placed ice bucket full of cola left in a random street, an attempted fist bump with a can in hand etc.

5. Buying your own BS:

Much has been made about the fact that this ad was created by an insourced team. I can see arguments and have seen examples supporting both that insourcing leads to more creative freedom and less. I believe agencies and companies alike often fall into a trap of buying their own BS.

As marketers, agencies or companies we are constantly competing for a vision of our target group. What drives them, what are they doing, who they like. Agencies build their image as much on the perceived accuracy of this vision as on our creative potential (i.e. people tend to view us as an agency that „gets“ the teens in the region). These assumptions of target groups, along with the creative process make an abstraction of reality which is only as good as much it was tested.

In any corporate system these assumptions increase, and there is no time to constantly test each of them. This is why after an hour of lofty philosophy regarding the copy, no one stops to think what an average, uninvolved consumer thinks that a copy like Live for now actually means. We’ve all seen the „prepping slide“ before the copy, explaining in detail what it means, but the trick is what the consumer will think, without an explanation. And mostly they don’t think anything. And this is why most ads aren’t noticed by users.

It would be very popular to end this article with a catchy “5 ways to prevent this from happening”, but it would also defeat the point. There is no easy solution to balancing storytelling with brand interests. This is why advertising is fun — it’s an exercise in building skills and craft in entire systems, so all you can do is be vigilant, and if you fail, pick up and go again. Just like the Pepsi team will.